Rolling in Dough, or Debt?

To hear Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, Carolyn Dumaresq, tell it, our school districts are rolling in dough. In an op-ed piece this week she said the proposed “2014-15 budget dedicates a record $12.01 billion for Pennsylvania’s early, basic and postsecondary education system.” [Indiana Gazette, 3-23-14] I like how you can roll three program areas together and get one giant-big-huge sounding number. Oh my gosh! Twelve billion!

Politicians apparently like to roll things together. It reminds me of when Gov. Corbett rolled a bunch of line items together in the K-12 “basic education” budget a couple years ago and then went around claiming he had “increased” K-12 funding, while overall he had slashed it by close to $1 billion. [See “The Truth About the Numbers”] Oh wait a minute. The administration is still making these outlandish claims. In her piece, Dr. Dumaresq repeated Gov. Corbett’s old story, saying, “Since taking office, Corbett has increased support of public schools by $1.55 billion.”

Why there you go. All along we thought he had decreased funding, but he has really increased it. Schools are literally rolling in extra dough. Hiring back thousands of laid-off teachers, restoring program cuts, re-opening those early childhood education classrooms – wait, what? They aren’t? Did anyone in the Governor’s office talk to the Allentown School District, which just announced yesterday that it will lay off another 100 teachers and educational staff? [Morning Call, 3-26-14] If only Allentown realized how much cash Gov. Corbett has been giving them. Maybe the check got lost in the mail.

Never mind. Dr. Dumaresq assures us that “Through targeted initiatives, the governor has … infused stronger educational resources into classrooms.” I’m glad those resources are strong, because now that we’ve laid off 20,000 teachers in Pennsylvania in the past three years, they are going to need muscles to do all the heavy lifting of educating 35 kids in a classroom. Seriously, “stronger educational resources”? Do we even know what this means?

That sounds similar to the next assertion that Gov. Corbett has “focused financial resources into initiatives that support all students.” When the governor eliminated our state’s fair funding formula he pretty much assured that financial resources were not going to equitably support all students.

After that op-ed, a sobering dose of reality might be in order. University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg delivered just that in a speech Monday, warning that students are now burdened with “crushing personal debts” as they try to pay for higher education while the state and federal government continue to slash support. [Post-Gazette, 3-24-14] In fact, Pennsylvania cut $67 million from Pitt’s budget three years ago, and then locked those cuts in for the past two years, meaning the University “now receives the same amount of state funding it received in 1995. If adjusted for inflation… state aid has fallen to its lowest level since the university became state-related in the 1960s.”

Yep. Pennsylvania public higher ed is definitely rolling in that state dough. Not. Indeed, Chancellor Nordenberg told the audience that “all but 10 states have begun to reinvest in higher education as the recession’s financial effects have eased; Pennsylvania is one of the 10 that has not.” Rather than rolling in dough, too many public education programs – from early childhood through higher ed – are rolling in debt.

The spot of good news in that area this week came from Pittsburgh Public Schools, which announced that it ended 2013 with an operating surplus of $20.8 million. That came mostly from unexpected increases in collections of earned income and real estate transfer taxes that may or may not continue. In other words, that bump may not be sustainable. And even with the welcome news from 2013, “the district is forecasting a $14.5 million deficit this calendar year, leading the district to run out of money in 2017 when the projected deficit is $59.8 million.” [Post-Gazette, 3-26-14]

So our fiscal crisis has been pushed back another year. But here in Pittsburgh, and around the state, we are still talking about mountains of debt, not dough.

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